M. Night Shyamalan makes a promising comeback with ‘The Visit ’

The Visit

Three and a half stars

The Visit Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.

Following the failures of would-be franchise-starters The Last Airbender and After Earth, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan has scaled way back for his new movie, the surprisingly entertaining horror-comedy The Visit. Not content to simply jostle a camera around while his actors run and scream, Shyamalan brings impressive skill to the disreputable found-footage genre. He sets up teenage main character Becca (Olivia DeJonge) as a budding filmmaker prone to dropping terms like “mise-en-scène,” so that he has a good reason to employ artful framing and cinematic elements like time-lapse, dissolves and non-diegetic music.

Becca and her younger brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are sent to spend a week with their grandparents, who’ve reached out after years of being estranged from Becca and Tyler’s mom (Kathryn Hahn). Apprehensive about staying with relatives they’ve never met but eager to give their mom a chance to take a vacation with her new boyfriend, Becca and Tyler head to an isolated farm to get to know Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (Peter McRobbie). Of course, things are not exactly what they seem, and soon the kids notice peculiar behavior that could just be typical senior-citizen forgetfulness, or could be something more sinister.

Shyamalan follows familiar found-footage storytelling beats by starting out with mundane character moments before adding in occasional jolts of the unexplained and culminating in a full-on horrific climax (complete with shaky cam). But his character moments are much stronger than those in the average found-footage movie, and he manages to tell an unexpectedly rich and layered story about two teenagers struggling to deal with their parents’ divorce. Shyamalan isn’t known for his sense of humor, but the jokes in The Visit are mostly well-placed, serving to undercut some of the found-footage clichés and to prime the audience for the eventual horrors.

Not all the humor (especially a few gross-out moments) works, and Shyamalan sometimes pushes too hard on the emotion. The inevitable twist isn’t hard to figure out, but it’s also a satisfying way to increase the tension in the final act. The Visit isn’t going to become an acclaimed classic like The Sixth Sense, but it’s easily Shyamalan’s best movie since Signs, and an indication that beneath the hubris and self-importance, he’s still a smart and talented filmmaker.

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